Amina Janjua holds a photo of herself with her husband, Masood Janjua, who… (Karin Brulliard/THE WASHINGTON…)
PESHAWAR, Pakistan — In between hearings on an employment dispute and a property crime, a lawyer stood in Courtroom 3 on a recent morning to recount what seemed a terrifying offense. Fourteen months ago, he said, civil servant Adil Shah was buying vegetables when he was detained by about 10 men in military and police uniforms, and his family had not seen or heard from him since.
The judge barely blinked. There was no gasp from the wooden benches of the gallery. So routine are the grim cases of enforced disappearances in Pakistan — referred to here as missing persons — that they are now discussed like other chronic woes, such as power cuts and inflation. This northwestern city’s High Court hears five cases a day.
The disappearances are growing, according to international and Pakistani human rights organizations, which estimate that thousands of people have been kidnapped and detained incommunicado in secret prisons in the past decade. Some have been killed, they say. Exact numbers are unknown, in part because many people are afraid to report the abductions, according to Human Rights Watch.
Most of the disappeared are believed to be suspected of ties to Islamist militants or separatist movements viewed as threats by Pakistan’s potent security establishment, in particular the military’s Inter-Services Intelligence spy agency, rights advocates and Pakistani officials said.
The open secret of disappearances illustrates the grip the military establishment retains over Pakistani society, including its dysfunctional justice system and feeble civilian government, which has repeatedly vowed to stop the problem. A government commission has traced several dozen missing people and publicly said Pakistani intelligence agencies are involved, but it has held no one accountable. President Asif Ali Zardari recently approved regulations that lawyers say gave the military expanded latitude to detain and try suspected militants.
Military spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas strongly denied a military role in disappearances. Many missing people are hiding in Karachi, Dubai or Afghanistan, he said, or are victims of militant infighting.
Privately, however, Pakistani officials say security forces hold many suspects because they believe the nation’s substandard police and courts would otherwise release them.
In its 2010 human rights report, the U.S. State Department referred to disappearances, extrajudicial killings and torture as Pakistan’s major human rights problems but said a “culture of impunity” surrounded crimes involving security forces.
“We urge appropriate Pakistani civilian and military authorities to investigate all credible allegations of human rights abuses and hold accountable those proven to be responsible for such violations,” said Mark Stroh, the U.S. embassy spokesman. “We have discussed allegations of human rights abuses with Pakistani officials frequently and continue to monitor the situation closely.”
But the issue is awkward for the United States, which over the past decade has provided billions of dollars in aid to support Pakistan’s counterterrorism efforts and has frequently urged Pakistani officials to be aggressive in rounding up al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters. Former Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf wrote in his memoirs of earning millions of reward dollars by handing terrorism suspects over to U.S. custody.
Reported disappearances have swelled as Pakistan has battled a persistent Taliban insurgency in the northwest. But many reports of missing people, which run regularly in the Pakistani media, originate far from the battlefield. Human rights organizations say Pakistan has swept up an array of suspected opponents, particularly in Baluchistan province, where there is a simmering nationalist insurgency waged by the Baluch ethnic minority.
On the docket in Peshawar recently was the case of a man who, two years ago, was blindfolded by security officials in a Peshawar bank and taken away. A court clerk’s father-in-law — a cleric — has also disappeared, said Iqbal Khan Mohmand, the deputy attorney general, who represents the government but said he has little power beyond asking military authorities where a missing person is and reporting their answer to the court.
According to his relatives, Shah, 28, was a newly married junior clerk at the University of Peshawar law school, a job that required a criminal background check. Days after he disappeared, a team of uniformed officers led by an ISI agent searched the family home and said only that Shah was being held in an investigation. The family believes he is being held by the military in Pakistan’s Swat Valley, said their lawyer, whose court filing described Shah’s wife as “deprived from the happiness and joy of marriage.”